• Matthew Whiley

Fan's Perspective: Sale Sharks

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

We've all realised over the last few months how much fans mean to sport, and it pains us to see empty stands on the TV. I myself felt a big pang of longing when I watched Yorkshire play Lancashire in a T20 cricket match at Headingley in front of empty stands just last week. I've been to the last nine Roses games at Headingley in a row, and I'm sure the vast majority of fans would agree with me that watching your team on the TV, whatever the sport in question, is just nowhere near the same as being in the ground.

That's what gave me the idea for this next post, with an emphasis on the lifeblood of professional sport - the match-going fans - with some questions being posed to a fan of a specific team, and I'm hopeful that this might develop into a series, covering a range of teams across different sports. For now, though, we're kicking things off with some questions to a friend of mine (everyone's got to start somewhere!), Alex, who supports rugby union side Sale Sharks. I went along with him to watch a game a couple of years ago, and we had plans to go again this year, until that thing called coronavirus came along. Still, we'll no doubt get to another game in the future, and for now, let's put Alex on the spot about all things Sale.

I started off by asking him what is it about rugby that you love?

I think one of the things is definitely a friendlier atmosphere than you get at football games - you'll find, for example, rival fans sat next to each other, and a lot of the fans too are very knowledgeable people. Those that are there are really into it and have a much deeper understanding of the game compared to a football crowd. That's a good thing, too, because it's a technical game - my Dad and I don't always know exactly what different terms mean, so it's fascinating in that sense, and particularly when it comes to tactics - field positioning and territory, and the like. Tactics are also one of the things I found I most enjoyed when I've played the game too.

Why Sale?

That'll be my Dad. Pretty simple, and quite a common answer for a lot of people as to why they support the team they do. He took me to my first game.

Do you remember your first game?

The first one I can remember is going to Heywood Road [Sale moved in 2003; so Alex would have been four at most] and we were sat not too far from one of the try lines. Dad put me on the railing next to the pitch and I was kind of leaning back against him and watching it from there. I can't remember the match, the score, or anything else - just that, but it's sort of the first memory I've got of knowing I was watching Sale.

What's been your favourite memory of supporting Sale?

Got to be when we went down to Twickenham for the Premiership final against Leicester [in 2006]. Bit wet that day, but a good result! I don't particularly remember much, but I can remember being down there, seeing the outside of Twickenham, and of course I remember that we won! I think we were sat towards the back of the bottom tier, inside one of the 22s. We recorded the game on TV back home, and my sister was in a bright pink coat so we actually spotted where we were sitting because we saw that coat! A close second might be the European Challenge Cup final against Pau a year earlier in Oxford.

And what about a low point, if you can bear to think of it?

Err... I've been to some poor games that we've played. There were some games a few years ago when we weren't doing so well. I might be struggling for one single low point... we have, maybe ten years ago, flirted with relegation a bit, but I wouldn't say there's been anything in particular I'd really call a low point. Maybe right now, possibly? Not being able to go and watch the games when we're doing quite well and winning a trophy doesn't feel great [the game I mentioned above that we had plans to go and watch before a rather persistent virus intervened was the Premiership Rugby Cup final v Harlequins. It was rearranged for last night, 21st September, with Sale winning 27-19].

Who would you say is your favourite Sale player, both now and ever?

I quite like what Luke James is doing at the moment. He's come in and staked a claim to be in the side more regularly; he's been good. AJ MacGinty as well, he's a sort of 'control and steady the ship' type player who's tended to play a bit more and has done well, so those two probably currently. I think all-time, you can't look past Jason Robinson or Mark Cueto really. We went to [Robinson's] last game at Edgeley Park; you were always on the edge of your seat when he got the ball, so it's probably got to be him.

If you could bring one current player to Sale from anywhere in the world, who would it be?

There's definitely a few players you'd like to have... Beauden Barrett maybe? That full-back position, with pace. To be honest, I think you look at the All Blacks and you wouldn't pass up the chance to have any of them in your team! Off the top of my head, I'll pick Beauden Barrett.

Do you ever get involved with any of Sale's other ventures outside of the main first XV, such as community projects or going to watch academy teams?

Unfortunately not really. I have seen an academy game, but that's more because my cousin was playing for Wasps against Sale. I would have liked to try get to a few games for the new women's team that has just started this season but unfortunately I'm at university and, let's be honest, who actually knows when we'll be allowed to get into a ground to watch a game?

There are two games left and it's close, are you confident of qualifying for the playoffs?

It's been a bit hit and miss since we've come back; we had a good run before the break, and since then a bit less so. I think it depends what we do penalty count-wise, we've been giving quite a lot of them away lately, and we've shown we can be quite sloppy at points, so we'll see. We've got [Northampton] Saints and Worcester left to play... I think Saints got quite badly beaten the other day, but we lost to Bath - that was a big one, we needed to win that, and instead it put Bath ahead of us. Bath do have Sarries to play, so that could be a tough one for them. I think... oh it's difficult to say, you don't want to go "yes I'm confident" and then it all goes wrong... [we had a detailed discussion about the table and the possible outcomes of the remaining matches at this point] yes, I'll say I'm quietly confident and I'll back us.

This is guaranteed to be Sale's best league finish in at least 11 years, and third consecutive year finishing higher than the last season. You must feel as though it's a good time to be a fan?

Yes, I definitely think we're going in the right direction. We've gone through a rebuilding period, brought in players whose careers weren't at a particularly brilliant level and built them back up; Danny Cipriani being a recent good example. I think off the field we look good as well; we've got that investment... so yes, it's a good time.

What are Sale's targets over the next few years? Consistent Champions' Cup qualification? A shot at the Premiership title?

I think initially we've got to be looking at consistent European qualification; solidifying our place in the top-tier European competition every season. And then, yes, of course, you want to win the title, don't you, so I think we have to aim high and I'd agree that we want to be pushing for the title very soon. Then maybe even looking at making good runs to the late stages of the Champions' Cup too. I think these are definitely realistic prospects, just as long as we can be a bit more consistent, especially in the Premiership. Europe's obviously a bit harder, but you need an aim, so that would be a good one to have.

And finally, what would you say to persuade someone to get into following rugby?

I'd say go to a game, give it a chance. I know if it's wet and windy it can be a bit of a dull affair, but if you get a good one I think you might find you'll really get into it [I know this for a fact, I went with Alex to my first Sale game a couple of years ago and it was brilliantly tense, with Sale winning by one point with a last-minute try]. It's a good fun game to watch, it can very often get you on the edge of your seat. I'd say, go, give it a chance, and you might find you come away having really enjoyed it. If you don't, and it's not for you, then it's not for you, but at least you gave it a go, and if you're already a sports fan, the possibility is there that you'll want to keep following it. For me, it's my favourite sport to go and watch live, even ahead of football.

Just as long as anyone who does get into it supports Sale, I suppose!

Thanks very much to Alex for taking the time to answer these questions; if you think you might want to take part in answering some questions (or if you know of someone else who might want to) about supporting a particular team - it can be any team, playing any sport - please get in touch with me using the 'Contact Me' form at the bottom of the homepage.

Signing off,